Along with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the Jewish Grandparents Network (JGN) and Keshet share a commitment to an inclusive Jewish community that reflects and affirms marginalized identities. We realized we could have the greatest impact towards a more inclusive community if we worked together. The following article illustrates what we learned from our collaboration, outlining steps that may help others that seek effective partnerships.
Step 1: Find partners with shared values
In autumn 2021, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Jewish Grandparents Network (JGN) shared gender-inclusive Shabbat blessings across our online platforms, Reform Judaism and The Family Room. We were looking for other ways to collaborate, which led to a conversation about grandparents needing help understanding gender expansiveness and using pronouns beyond the binary.
Meanwhile, Keshet hosted an online event to introduce grandparents and other cherished elders to general LGBTQ+ affirming practices and terms, and invite participation in Keshet's policy advocacy work. Knowing of this work, the URJ and JGN reached out to Keshet to explore their interest in partnering with us and enhancing our capacity to encompass gender identity in our education and outreach.
In our first conversation, we learned from Keshet that they had heard from grandparents that their greatest interest lay in finding loving, supportive ways to connect with their non-binary grandchildren. Grandparents also needed a safe space to ask questions about these family relationships. This need was echoed by JGN members who are the grandparents of transgender, non-binary, and gender-fluid children.
The URJ's Racial Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (REDI) team is immersed in the work of education about the critical importance of affirming children with marginalized identities through our trainings for lay leaders, youth, and camp staff. We were just beginning to open up training and affinity spaces for individual members of our communities, but lacked the capacity to plan for more in the short term. To respond to this need, we needed to get creative.
The partners were set.
Step 2: Determine the right time
As Passover 2022 approached, many extended families planned to finally reunite for a seder after two years of social distancing under incredibly stressful circumstances. We imagined that we could do something to reduce the apprehension felt by families in which children were expressing new gender identities. We always hope to have an impact through our work. Scheduling these events before multi-generational families gathered together seemed like a force multiplier. We felt we could be ready before Passover, but we could have chosen the High Holidays, Thanksgiving, or any other time of year when families often gather.
Step 3: Listen to the constituents
Grandparents want to show their love and support for their grandchildren and respect their privacy, but sometimes feel they don't have the words to do so. We heard: "I find the correct terminology very confusing. My grandchild has talked with their parents about their gender identity and pronouns but hasn't yet talked with me. What is the etiquette for asking questions about identity and pronouns?
Teens suggested, "Talk to us. Ask open questions without judgment. Ask us what pronouns we want you to use and what nicknames we want you to use. And then, if you want to show me that you love me, use my pronouns. Respect me when I tell you who I am. I'm still me."
Some grandparents are familiar with gender terminology and pronouns but ask, "What is our special role as grandparents? What do we do if we mess up?" Teens told us, "Don't talk about how it's hard for you. That makes it about you. If you mess up, just correct yourself and perhaps say you're sorry, then move on."
Step 4: Plan hard and smart
Representatives from our three organizations met multiple times starting in November 2021. We workshopped ideas, agreed on a concept, and established roles and responsibilities based on each organization's specific strength and capacities. Planning began in earnest in December.
We planned a series of two trainings and two talkback sessions for the weeks before Passover to assist grandparents preparing to gather with family.
URJ's REDI team prepared a session about marginalized identities, microaggressions, and the importance of being able to show up in Jewish spaces as our full selves. Keshet's team prepared a Gender 101 session that defined important terms and concepts related to gender identity, pronouns, and legislative advocacy opportunities. The URJ managed the project and prepared marketing assets. All three organizations publicized the events through our networks and social media channels.
Every step of the planning process was intentional, aligning both partners and stakeholders. We consulted with grandparents about what they cared about. We consulted with trans, non-binary, and gender-fluid tweens, teens, and young adults on what their grandparents did best, and what they wished they would do differently.
We coordinated behind the scenes during each live event, deciding who would answer what questions and when to respond with resource links dropped in the chat. We met and planned together between sessions, revising based on feedback we each had received, co-authoring surveys and follow-up emails. Each partner revised and approved communications.
We also knew not to over-plan, so that we could allow space for genuine conversation to develop organically.
Step 5: Assess the results
We surveyed participants (346 grandparents and allies registered) and also received unsolicited feedback. We heard:
"I was amazed at how much I learned and needed to rethink."
"The need for education is so immense. As a 77-year-old grandmother with a teen grandchild who identifies as non-binary, just becoming accustomed to the vocabulary is immense… I want to keep on learning, understanding and supporting."
"I am so grateful and appreciative for all that is being done for grandparents to connect with our grandchildren in such a beautiful and understanding way."
Participants reported feeling shocked and dismayed when learning that the rate of attempted suicide among transgender and nonbinary young people is over 40%. When family members respect and affirm the pronouns of transgender or non-binary youth, that number drops to 20%. One grandmother shared, "If I can cut that chance in half by using the right pronouns, I'm going to lean into my discomfort and work harder to get it right." And, if each of the participants represents one family with one trans or nonbinary child, the impact of this shift could be huge.
Through this joint initiative, we forged important organizational relationships. One planning team member said: "This might be the most thoughtful group I've ever had the pleasure to work with. I wish all collaborations were like this." We all, unanimously, agree.
Most importantly, we hope that grandparents can strengthen their loving relationships with their trans and non-binary grandchildren and are better able to be advocates and allies for LGBTQ+ youth among their friends and communities. In a time of unprecedented legislative assaults on LGBTQ+ youth, particularly trans youth, grandparent advocacy could not be more urgent and important. For more information about gender diversity in congregational settings, please download the resource guide prepared by Keshet and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.